A gift to golfers

Golfers putt on the ninth hole Saturday at the Southern Oaks Golf Club.

If golf is your bag, the southeastern corner of The Villages was the place to be Saturday.

It was a day for Southern Oaks Golf Club to formally raise the curtain, as dozens of golfers waited — undeterred by morning fog — to take their first swings on the first championship course in The Villages' booming southern expansion.

"Everybody was so excited,” said Rick O'Donnell, of the Village of Dunedin. "But they just couldn't go yet.”

And for those without a tee time — or perhaps as a little post-round side trip — there was no waiting at the Ezell Recreation Complex, named after The Villages' venerable course designer and teeming with golf hardware and memorabilia.

"The planning has been fantastic from the vision of this place,” said Bob Geen, of the Village of Bradford. "It's nice to see it executed with such perfection.”

Though golf is Geen's favorite Villages activity, he also was impressed with the new Ezell fitness center.

"This is is a little more convenient for me coming from Bradford,” he said. "I actually biked over here this morning. It's less than a mile and a half. And I figured when I'm done, I can go over and get a drink when the market opens as well.”

Ezell Recreation and Southern Oaks are the first amenities to open at Sawgrass Grove, where work continues on future dining, shopping and entertainment options.

Though the center had offered select tours earlier in the week, Saturday was its first day to throw everything open. Pickleball and bocce were the first to see outdoor activity.

"Today has been pretty steady traffic coming in and going out,” said recreation supervisor Monica Lui. "We believe it's going to be a great hub for all the residents in this area. We're looking forward to see where it grows.”

All in all, reviews were strongly upbeat. Not even the fog issues did much to dampen the positive vibe.

"We're looking forward to the opportunity to play all 18,” said Wayne Farley, a Village of Fenney resident whose foursome was the first to reach No. 18 but had to skip the first half-dozen to move play along after the fog lifted.

Anyone who didn't get to play all 18 received partial credit toward a future round.

"It fogged hard,” said Tyler Krager, Southern Oaks' head PGA professional. "We had 64 players waiting — and here's the key word — patiently. Patience was in big supply today.”

Fog shrouded the layout as the sun broke over the horizon, limiting visibility to perhaps halfway down the first fairway.

That kept everyone cooling their heels for about 45 minutes until the fog lifted. Ambassadors took groups out to where they would have been had they started on time.

"And then almost immediately it rolled back in,” said Ken Roshaven, director of golf services for The Villages Golf & Tennis.

Quipped Krager: "What a day to have thick fog — the first day on a new course when absolutely nobody knows where they're going.”

Once out on the course, folks gave Southern Oaks an overwhelming thumbs-up.

"Very challenging, but it's very nice,” said Vickie Saulsbury, of the Village of Gilchrist. "The rough is very thick. On some holes, you've got to hit it a long way to get to the fairway. But it's been fun.”

"It's going to become one of my favorites,” said Marc Violetta, a Village of DeSoto resident.

Bob Yon watched happily as his putt from the back of the 18th green trickled perhaps 25 feet down a slight slope and into the hole.

"Put down that it was the best putt you've seen all day,” the Village of McClure resident said.

But not the best shot of his foursome. That came from Farley, who holed out from a greenside bunker for birdie at No. 17 — after telling everyone he was going to pull it off.

"Just like you see it on TV,” Yon suggested.

Kenny Ezell surely would have enjoyed it had he seen it. He's the architect who drew up Southern Oaks and many other golf holes in The Villages.

"I'm very glad they named it and dedicated it to a longtime employee,” said Deborah Mitchell, who closed on a home in the Village of Citrus Grove earlier this month after four years of renting in The Villages.

Though Mitchell isn't a golfer, Ezell's opening was a major factor in where she and her husband decided to settle.

"We bought our house in Citrus Grove based on this rec center, and being close to it,” she said. "It's bigger. We love the location, being close to the amenities.”

Village of St. Catherine neighbors Kathy Mackey, Kathy Talloss and Tammy Laramare spent part of their mornings getting a look at their new home amenities.

"I've been waiting for three months for it to open,” said Mackey, who came to The Villages three months ago from Tennessee. "It factored into our location. We wanted to be close by so we can walk and experience all the activities.”

Said Talloss: "I think it's beautiful. I love this pool. I'm excited to go see the gym. I haven't seen it yet, and I want to get involved in that.”

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.